26 January 2008

Ethnic Notions

Ethnic Notions
United States - 1986
Director – Marlon Riggs
California Newsreel, 1987, VHS

This isn’t even a documentary. I’ve seen several California Newsreel pieces now, and I believe they live in a netherworld between documentary and education. They show how cultural edifice exists, and analyze the fallacy of its construction in a very tangible, direct way.

Ethnic Notions doesn’t stray from that line, rather it confronts the manufactured image of Blackness as perceived or more precisely imagined, by white culture full force. The film begins with an explanation of the development of Black stereotypes; the Mammy, Sambo, Coon, Pickaninny and Uncle Tom, which have been promoted and used since the advent of American slavery to the American Civil War, into modern pop culture.

An interesting problem that the film and the persons interviewed, both black and white, convey, is the idea of contradiction. The best way I can describe this is that in order to move beyond basic subservience, Black Americans have had to reinforce the very stereotypes which reduce them to a state of subject, and servitude. Throughout the film, from the original minstrel character of Jim Crow, to Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley, multiple and clear examples of servile self-mockery are detailed and analyzed, and it is not difficult for the viewer to see, even 22 years after this film was made. the poignant relevance of the diagram.

From beginning to end, the persistent racist iconography of United States media of all types are laid bare…for a very few interested people. It is no surprise that this film was already lost by the time it was made, it’s too alive, too cutting to be allowed.

California Newsreel still publishes entertaining and socially concious films:

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